Andrew Ball, pianist who delighted in playing ‘difficult’ contemporary music – obituary

·3 min read
Andrew Ball
Andrew Ball

Andrew Ball, who has died from complications of Parkinson’s disease aged 72, was a conscientious and self-effacing British pianist who made his mark by exploring contemporary and modern music at the fringes of the instrument’s repertoire, especially the more gargantuan works.

He studied Michael Tippett’s piano sonatas with the composer; delivered persuasive performances of Busoni’s homage to Bach known as the Fantasia contrappuntistica; gave the premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Piano Sonata at the Bath Festival in 1987; and entranced Proms audiences in 1995 with Messiaen’s chamber piece Couleurs de la cité céleste.

Described by one critic as “above all, a thinker-pianist”, Ball was a popular and reliable accompanist, forming a valuable musical partnership with the clarinettist David Campbell, who was an old school friend. He also worked with the violinist Madeleine Mitchell, the pianist Julian Jacobson and the tenor Martyn Hill, whom he accompanied in a staged performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at the Riverside Studios, London, in 1996.

Ball's 2010 album
Ball's 2010 album

Ball did not believe in making life easy for either himself or his audience. One recital in 1997 was best summed up as “three funerals and a transcendental experience” thanks to a programme that included a trio of funereal works followed by the torrent of notes that make up the 50 minutes of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata.

He spoke of trying to overcome the barriers between performers and contemporary composers, describing how for his recital at the 1985 Brighton Festival the composer Chris Dench produced “a work of extreme difficulty, horrifically complicated and posing immense problems of pianistic athleticism”. Had it been presented as a “fait accompli”, Ball would almost certainly have rejected it, but throughout the process the composer kept him abreast of the way the piece was taking shape “and even of the problems and vicissitudes he was encountering”.

Ball was an accomplished and reliable accompanist
Ball was an accomplished and reliable accompanist

Andrew Charles Ball was born in the Bitterne area of Southampton on June 16 1950, the eldest of three children of Charles Ball, a chartered surveyor, and his wife Margaret (née Muir), who later worked for Hampshire County Council. Although there was little music in the family, he quickly took to the piano, becoming remarkably fluent at sight reading.

He was educated at Barton Peveril Grammar School in Eastleigh, Hampshire, and made one of his first concert appearances in 1966 playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major K415 with the Havant Chamber Orchestra. As a boy he had a passion for train spotting and in later life kept a large collection of railway books.

After reading music at The Queen’s College, Oxford, Ball continued his piano studies with Kendall Taylor at the Royal College of Music. His professional debut at the Wigmore Hall in June 1974 included works ranging from Clementi and Schumann to Debussy and Prokofiev. He also appeared with the Park Lane Group, which supports the work of young musicians and contemporary composers, returning in 2006 to mark their 50th anniversary in an eclectic two-hour concert consisting of 50 short piano pieces, none longer than four minutes.

Ball's 2010 album recorded with Susan Milan
Ball's 2010 album recorded with Susan Milan

Ball taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and in 1999 became head of keyboard at the Royal College of Music. He was a frequent visitor to the recording studio, where his output ranged from Tippett and Lili Boulanger to Billy Mayerl’s works for piano and orchestra. He was also a regular competition adjudicator, despite describing such events as “dinosaurs”. In 2018 he took part in a study day to mark the 20th anniversary of Tippett’s death organised by the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe.

An enthusiastic cook, he had a vast collection of recipe books. He also enjoyed reading poetry and occasionally composed in verse.

Andrew Ball, who was a member of the Humanist Society, was unmarried; he is survived by his friend Catherine Edwards.

Andrew Ball, born  June 16 1950, died July 10 2022